This is a work of fiction. There should be no way that these characters are like anyone else, but if that isn’t the case, it has definitely been unintentional. The pictures used are those of Ziyi Zhang, used without express permission. Quotes from the Tao Te Ching are from the Stephan Mitchell translation. Also, if you happen to find that your life is represented in these pages, I’ll be impressed.
Can you deal with the most vital matters by letting events take their course? Can you step back from your own mind and thus understand all things? – Chapter 10, Tao Te Ching
Monday, 19 February 2007
Chou stared up at the bunk above hers, noting that there were no sheets on it. It was bare, a simple mattress on the metal frame. Her clothes were in the closet. She even had some of the snacks she liked in her fridge but the walls were half bare, one desk was bare of a laptop, knickknacks and the other signs of her old room. Even the light was different, but that only showed when the sun was actually over the horizon. There were no other signs of life inside the room, save her own.
She stood up from her bed and turned. This was not the room she had shared with Ayla. She was no longer in her best friend’s room. There was no threat of Brass Monkey to get her up and out of bed early. No threat of Ayla phasing down and spooning against her naked. But there was no chance she would have late night talks with the one person in this damn hallway who understood that despite acclimatizing she still wanted to be a boy, that she still dreamed about it occasionally.
It took some effort but she did fight back the tears. This had been her plan. She had decided that she needed to get some space between her and Team Kimba, that she was not going to be able to do what she needed to if she were still on that team and still visible. It did not even make sense, except for this vague warning that was hard to nail down. She had to get the crosshairs off of herself now, before they really settled on her. She had to become less of a threat and that left… this stupid plan.
A sob broke free and she wiped her eyes, trying to keep things from spilling into tears again. At least she would be able to have alone time with Molly for a bit until a new roommate arrived. That was something.
With a shake of her head, she cleared her thoughts and headed for the bathroom. Regardless of what heart and mind were going through, the body still had its own dictates that drove everyone. Once done and back in her room, she dressed and grabbed Destiny’s Wave. No matter if it felt like her world was falling apart again, she still had practice. The sword had drilled that into her.
The snow crunched underfoot as Chou walked out of Poe Hall and rolled her shoulders to loosen them. Boudicea was already out there rolling her neck, shaking her hands. The older girl turned at the sound and smiled at the Asian girl. “Morning Chou.”
“Good Morning,” replied Chou with as much cheerfulness as she could manage.
Fey yawned as she walked out. She waved weakly at the other two as she headed closer. Chou nodded curtly and said, “So, are you guys ready?”
They both nodded and Chou began to lead them through the Wudan Tai Chi form. The movements were much smoother now compared to when they had started doing this back in November. The girls had learned the basics of the form really quickly and now were attempting the arduous task of getting used to it enough to begin sparring with it. Sadly, Chou figured that these two might be ready to do that in late March or early April. They just did not have the moves down well enough quite yet. When they sparred, the two fell back to what they had already learned, rather than what they were learning.
This also made Chou consider whether she should still be teaching Nikki, because of the plan that set all of this in motion. By now the majority of the school had to know about Ayla kicking her off the training team due to being a liability. Add to that the room change and this was going to be such a lovely day, the start of an equally lovely week. If only she had thought far enough ahead to realize that she would be having tea with Silver Serpent this week. What a ridiculous situation she had put herself in.
She showered on automatic, hardly even thinking about what the body needed anymore. She barely even noticed the few other early risers taking showers, even the Exemplar beauties who used to take her breath away. Once back in her room she stood in front of her mirror on the back of her closet door and just stared at herself, the towel dropping from her numb fingers. She did not see her body, or the curves that magic had changed it to, all she saw were her own eyes and the sadness and desperation in them. Only fear and desperation could have torn her from her friends and now she was cut off from people who had saved her life, helped her to heal and become a person rather than a loony in a borrowed body. In all honesty she was probably going to start really missing the rest of them pretty quick. Outside of holidays she had spent part of every day with them. They were her constant.
What a fucking idiot she was.
* * * * *
She walked to breakfast alone, the first time in months. Molly met up with her and gave her a tight hug, which brought out a slight smile. As Molly let loose, the girl looked in Chou’s face and said, “Look I know this is hurting you. You don’t have to be all stoic and keep it all it. You can let it out a little Chou.”
Chou nodded a little, sniffling slightly, fighting off the urge to let everything out right here, because that would not help matters and she doubted that it would make her feel better right now. “Thanks.”
“If you want I can set something loose to go after Ayla. I mean, I got that Tanuki summoning down pat,” Molly replied with a wide grin.
With a chuckle Chou shook her head and said, “No. Besides, I am sure that Sun will still drop in to play with Ayla and that is more grief than anyone should have to deal with.”
“Okay. You have a point.”
When they ran into Dorjee, that hug helped as well. She relaxed into it and more tension drained out of her. These two were good for her and her sanity and that helped. “Is everything alright Chou?”
“Yes, Dorjee. I am fine.”
He smiled softly at her. “I find it hard to believe you given what has happened, but we will go with that. When asked, what should we say?”
Chou paused. Molly and Dorjee needed to know what to say also. She sighed and let them know the ‘official’ party line, about her being too weak, about her being worried after being injured several times fighting with Team Kimba, and then nearly dying the last time they were in Boston. She would have to decide when to let them in to the truth. After all, Dorjee would not want to lie. She had simply forgotten to let them know, since this had happened so fast. Ayla had just looked upset at the idea, then looked grim, and then had done it. And poof, Chou was out of TK.
They both hugged her again, wanting to assure her of their love. It really helped, as Chou was not having a good day. Perhaps talking to her mentor or Dr. Bellows might be a good idea if she could fit it into the schedule. If that didn’t work there was always Destiny’s Wave. The sword was helpful most of the time.
It took everything she had not to look towards the ‘usual’ table or head that way. Thankfully, Dorjee was smart enough to herd her in the direction she needed to go, closer to the Dragons, closer to people who were not from Poe. This did not go unnoticed.
People already knew about Chou and her whole situation. It had passed through the school quickly, thanks to the fact that anything The Goodkind did was news, even if it shouldn’t be. The Underdogs were sympathetic for what had happened. Anna seemed fit to be tied and Molly did try to calm down the upset squirrel girl. Chou, for the most part, was thankfully not fully aware of it or it might have upset her even more than she already was. Mostly she kept turning circles in her own head about how smart or dumb this plan was, and if she had made the right choice.
At other tables, there was talk.
“Did you hear that Phase’s roommate got booted from the team, kicked out of her room, and is now going to be meeting with Silver Serpent?”
“Wait, Bladedancer is going to talk with Silver Serpent? When?”
“From what I hear, sometime tomorrow.”
“I wonder if this is how the Goodkind bitch is going get hers, with Bladedancer using Pan-Asia to bring the smackdown. The business contacts and markets alone make that a valuable link. Do we have anyone trying to figure out how to get more information?”
“Yeah, but we’re not sure how successful it is going to be. I’m sure they’re going to have something to stop eavesdroppers.”
“Right. Well, keep tabs on them. We might get lucky and get some real intel that we can use.”
THE GOOD OL’ BOYZ
“Did you hear that Phase’s roommate is going to be meeting with Silver Serpent?”
“And why do I care?” replied Fantastico, with a snort.
“Her roommate that she kicked off her team and out of her room. That roommate.”
“This could be a move by someone with a grudge against Phase.<'mso-spacerun:yes'> Someone who knows her real well. We need to find a way to use this to our advantage.”
“Well, if you think it is something we need to do…”
“Have I given you bad advice?”
Fantastico raised an eyebrow and looked at him in disbelief.
“Have I given you bad advice when it really mattered?”
“Well, no. Not so much.” Even he had to begrudgingly agree to that point.
“Bladedancer’s an asset we can turn to our side if we do this right. With her knowledge of Team Kimba and especially Phase, she’s really valuable. Right now, she’s vulnerable. We need to make this happen.”
“What about the Dragons? She’s dating one of them.”
“I think we can come to some sort of an agreement with them. Not to worry.”
“Well, okay then. Make it happen.”
THE FUTURE SUPERHEROES OF AMERICA
“It is a bit reprehensible that one of her own teammates did this to her,” commented Saladin. “Their support was helping to keep her safe.”
Hippolyta snorted derisively. “Yeah, well that team is a bunch of over-rated lunatics, so what do you expect?”
“I always felt that Bladedancer was one of the nicer and more approachable ones,” replied Gloriana. “She always came across as a very forthright person.”
“Yeah, and beating the snot out of that jackass Nex didn’t hurt,” said Iron Star. “Still, that was a pretty dick move.”
Pendragon leveled his gaze at Iron Star who raised his hands and said, “What?! It is! Only a fucking Goodkind would pull a cold-blooded move like that. Phase basically tossed her to the wolves.”
The head of the Capes looked thoughtful. “Yes, she did, didn’t she. That is not a very noble thing to do.”
Saladin shrugged, “I am going to keep an eye on her, to make sure she doesn’t get jumped over this.”
“I’m in,” added Hippolyta.
Lady Liberty nodded and said, “Perhaps someone should talk to the Goodkind about this sort of activity and why it is not appreciated.”
Pendragon looked thoughtful. That suggestion had merit.
THE NEW OLYMPIANS
“Do you buy this?” asked Knick-Knack.
“Buy what?” replied Judicator.
“This whole Bladedancer being kicked off of Team Kimba for being too weak thing? That doesn’t sound right.”
“What do you mean?” asked Cytherea, absently picking at her breakfast.
“I mean, look at what she was able to do to Chris and everyone else, and that’s too weak?”
“Enough!” Imperious growled out. “We all agreed NOT to talk about this. We have other concerns, like Jobe and Belphoebe and what they did to Counterpoint.”
“They did something to him. I can’t seem to heal him,” commented Prism.
“It’s that idiot’s fault anyway. He got what he deserved.”
“Well, regardless, Bladedancer is no longer with Team Kimba. What should we do about it?” asked Majestic.
“I think we should leave her alone. She made it clear that she would kill us if we messed with her again.”
Stygian just looked at his plate of food, ignoring the others.
* * * * *
After a morning in Team Tactics that never seemed to end, Chou opened her mailbox and saw that she had a letter in there. This confused her, as she never got mail. The only people who would send her stuff lived here in the dorm. Well, maybe Molly’s or Chaka’s parents might send her something, but that was doubtful. Given all of that, maybe Sun sent her something, which made her shiver in fear at the idea. Just knowing the revenge Ayla had been able to cobble together with magazines, the thought of what the Monkey King could do with magazines was enough to bring the most hardened Demon Lord to tears.
Taking out the letter, she saw it was from Lan Caihe Ho. This brought a smile to her lips, as the Immortal guardian was rather nice. She opened the letter and began to read the old style calligraphy with ease.
Greetings from your Guardians. After reading the material given to us by your Headmistress we became aware that coming soon is a break from your schooling. Further research into the habits of Westerners has shown us that this is a time when families might just take small trips for the purpose of vacations. We shall be by to pick you up for this Winter Break on Friday at three o’clock at the main building. Please have your things packed for we are, as is apparently a common American activity, going to Disneyland. As we have discovered that there are several such places we will travel to several of them on this trip to ensure that we have correctly gone to Disneyland. There is no doubt that your guidance will ensure that this trip will be filled with merriment.
Lan Caihe Ho
Chou’s eyes widened as she read this and she started to laugh. Several people stared at her as she did this, with a few even giving her plenty of space in case she was having another psychotic break like she had last fall. The girl made her way slowly up to her new room, still giggling. Now that was going to be a break to remember. Going to Disney with Taoist Immortals, how could Ayla possibly top that trip?
The more she thought about it, she realized that Ayla probably did have a way to top that. Knowing her ex-roommate, Ayla was probably going to take Vanessa to the moon or something. Still the trip was sure to be a lot of fun. It was just what she was going to need after all of this. One thing was for sure, Molly was going to be so mad at her.
* * * * *
Chou walked into the training room, looking at the course list for next semester, trying to figure out what might make the most sense. There were a lot of options and she was not exactly sure what to take. It wasn’t like she could sit down with Ayla and go over this stuff. What classes would be the best for her? Ayla was already beginning his obsessive analysis of class options and while it was amusing it had only highlighted that she had to work on getting her own classes.
She scanned the room quickly and spotted Dyffud sitting and drinking tea with Becca in one of the corners. When he spotted her, he waved her over, “Come sit and have some tea with us. You look like you could really stand relaxing.”
Chou was not really apprehensive about this team-up so much as unsure if this was going to be a bad thing overall. She sat, laying her satchel and Destiny’s Wave to the side, her eyes moving between her two mentors. “What’s up? Why are you both here?”
Becca smiled serenely, “Seeing as we are both listed as your advisors at the moment, we figured we would help you figure out what you would be taking in the spring. That is rather important for your education.”
This was not as bad as Chou feared and she sort of sighed softly. Maybe she was starting to get as paranoid as Ayla. That was not necessarily a good thing. “Okay. I’ve been thinking about that as well.”
“That’ll be helpful,” said Dyffud, taking a sip of his tea. “There are some things you need to take and some things you might want to take.”
“Well, I know I have Becca here for mentoring stuff.”
“Yes. We will be continuing to cover healing, herbalism, and the history of the Handmaids as well as expand your work with ofuda and kinetomancy. They seem like areas that will be useful for you,” the older woman replied.
“I will be here for part of the spring term. Not sure for how long but for maybe half of it I guess. I figure we will work more on your fighting in that time. Do you want to keep taking Martial Arts with Sensei Ito as well?”
Maybe just working with her mentor and Caitlin would get her skills at fighting away from people’s memories and they might start to forget what she could do. Chou was not sure and this was really confusing as she really had no actual idea how to do this. “Uhm… no, I don’t think I should. Between working with you and Caitlin, I think I have combat covered. Besides, with this stupid plan, I should probably avoid hanging out with any Team Kimba people at all and they will be in both class slots available.”
With a smile Becca said, “Well that lets us move into other things. I think you should take a flying class so you know how to use your cloud better.”
Chou nodded. That made sense and Tennyo had said the class was actually kind of fun. Besides, Team Tactics had really made it clear just how useful that cloud could be once she got the hang of it.
“You will also need a math, science, history and English class.”
“Uhm… okay. I guess the regular English, Algebra and World History. Can I take Physical Science or some other science class of that kind? I heard that one is kind of an overview on several different topics. I don’t really have a great science background and without the Exemplar package or being overly smart, some of the other classes might be more than I can handle,” answered Chou.
“That should be fine, but if it is not challenging let me know as early as possible and I will see about getting you into something better. How about Chinese Literature? It familiarizes you with the classics and for many stories I am sure Destiny’s Wave can help you. That and it will help you get better with modern Chinese, which is different. You have gotten better but could use more practice.”
Chou glanced at her sword and then back, thinking about what it would be like, having her sword tutor her on literature. “Sure. That’ll be great.”
“This is about as normal a class load as you can get here, so that will be of some help. This can help you sort of relax as there are a lot less super themed things there and this can get you out of the line of fire. Just remember, some people might think that you are even better now because they don’t see you doing anything. You will need to be aware of that.” Dyffud topped off her tea and then his own.
“So this works for my classes. I got Team Kimba to kick me out, at least that is what everyone thinks has happened, which will take care of the other part of the problem that is bothering me.”
Becca reached out and laid a hand lightly on Chou’s arm. “Are you sure that is what you want?”
“No. And so far it has really sucked, but it seems like the only way to stay out of the crosshairs. I need to become less visible. If I hang with Molly, Dorjee, and Winnie a lot, maybe with the Underdogs and Goobers, I will not be as large a target as I would be with Team Kimba. I need to be discounted as a real danger and if I keep hanging out with my friends my skills will keep getting pushed farther and farther in plain sight of everyone. It is bad enough that the Tao used me to beat on the New Olympians and the Tigers and Dragons in such a major way. That is not something that people are going to easily forget. But if I keep my head down, stay away from the trouble magnet that is TK, I just might be able to drift under the radar and become of less concern,” said Chou, clearly worried about this. “This is connected to the reason I was called and I can’t just blow that off. I have to do this right if I hope to succeed and not die.”
“Then we will help you Chou. Do not worry about that,” said Becca softly, resting a hand on the girl’s arm comfortingly.
“Never fear. We got this. Besides, if half the stuff I have heard about you is true, you need to relax and stop stressing as much. Have fun. Be a kid for a while. We got your back while you do this. That, more than anything, will screw with an enemy.”
* * * * *
The snow was on both sides of the sidewalk and Chou sort of wanted to play in it. She would have, but she had places to go and people to see. Maybe when she got things better sorted she could play more and not just stand there wishing she could. It would at least be something light hearted today and she kind of needed that.
“Chou! Hey, Chou!”
Closing her eyes, Chou asked the Tao for strength before turning to face Nightbane who was heading her way. Sarah rushed up and hugged her. With a groan as her bones creaked, she gasped out “Sarah… not so tight!”
“Oh! Sorry!” Sarah looked a bit sheepish when she let Chou go. Chou stretched some, to loosen her back and spine. “The hug was totally mandatory after I heard. You so did not need that.”
“Thanks.” This was not the fiftieth time she had heard that today, but it seemed as if that was all anybody could talk about and now she had her body crushed to emphasize things. Gods, could people just shut up about her and Team Kimba?
“You are better than all of them. Really.”
“What did you want Sarah?” Chou said with some exasperation. Her day had been far too long already in her opinion.
“Oh… right. Grapevine told me you’re doing the talky thing with Silver Serpent.”
“Yes. We are having tea tomorrow.”
“Well, you know she is one of the Bad Seeds, right?” asked Sarah, clearly incredulous that Chou was even considering this.
“Yes. I am somewhat familiar with that.” Chou struggled to hold back the smirk and was only partially successful. Perhaps she had been spending too much time hanging around Toni and Ayla if it was getting more difficult to hide things like that.
“Well, I wanted you to know that I know that and that I have your back if that snake tries anything. So you know that I know, you know?”
Chou blinked a few times as she parsed that. “It’s okay Sarah. I don’t think she is going to try anything. There were faculty members present when she asked me. We’re just going to have tea. That’s it.”
“You never know. She’s like the evil daughter of an evil Chinese villain… which seems a bit redundant to me.”
Chou ground her teeth at the racial slur that never used to apply to her until that gun show, and growled out, “In case you missed it, I’m Chinese.”
“Well, obviously not you. You are like this whole cool Crouching Tiger kind of person and she is like this Fu Manchu type evil,” clarified Sarah, only digging herself deeper.
“Get to the point Sarah.” Chou rubbed her forehead. It felt like she was starting to get a headache. She wanted some tea, to do some acupressure, and to lie down in the dark.
“Well… just wanted to let you know that I got your back in case you needed to stomp on a snake or anything.”
Chou sighed. It made her sick to her stomach what she was going to have to say, but the opportunity was just too useful. “Thank you for that Sarah. It is nice to know that someone actually has my back. If I need your help I will let you know. Thank you.”
“No problem. You are well on the way to becoming a full member of the Goobers. That will be great. And we aren’t all crazy like Phase and them.”
Chou resisted replying with the first thing that entered her mind. “Thanks for that Sarah, it means a lot. Look, I have got to get going. I have some homework to do for Team Tactics. I still have to finish that class out.”
“Ouch. That has to sting. Okay. TTFN Chou!”
Chou watched the girl rush off, glad to see her go. She was friendly but was clearly a danger to those around her. She so did not need this, not after the day she had been having. She also felt dirty for implying over and over that her friends did not have her back. That hurt. Maybe she needed to change her plans, go find Molly and just get held for a while.
* * * * *
Chou sat down heavily in her chair by the desk and sighed. This was not going to be easy and she knew it. This whole crazy idea of hers, to isolate herself from her friends in order to reduce her target profile was stupid and she hated it. When she traveled the Garden, all the paths where she isolated herself from the others seemed to work better than those where she was still with them. It was almost impossible to make sense of the complexity of the pattern, as there were knots and snarls all leading to the problem spot, the black spot where she felt the largest draw. She had to be there, had to do this, had to fix whatever the situation was. And she was too visible right now to do it well.
The problem was, she had gone from few friends, to no friends after she had transformed, to having a lot of friends, to now only having only a few friends again, walking away from the best friends she had ever had. And she had walked away publicly. Not being able to talk to any of them was hard, harder than she had expected. Pretending to be worried about dying, while sort of valid, was frustrating. The people she had come to depend on helping her get past these sorts of stresses were the very people she could not publicly go see. This totally sucked!
She glanced at the clock and bit her bottom lip. Maybe she could talk to someone and not get caught? There was only one person she really wanted to talk to, and thankfully he was the one who could probably sneak over without getting caught.
From over the Spots the voice replied. <Yes?>
<Can we talk really quick?>
<Sure. Hang on.>
In a few moments, Ayla came through the wall looking a bit worried. “Are you okay?”
“Am I making the right choice? Is this plan good?” asked Chou, rather worried about everything.
“You mean your crazy plan to have us dump you? I don’t think you made a good choice, but then again, I don’t have all the information you have,” replied Ayla, shifting in his seat so he could better see Chou. “This just seems… precipitous.”
Chou nodded. “Part of the problem is that this thing we are heading towards, if I hang out with Team Kimba, all the paths seem to lead to failure while at the same time the paths where I don’t hang out lead to success. This sucks! I finally get friends, really good friends and now I have to walk away for the good of what?”
“I have no idea. If your leaving makes it more likely that we will survive this arcane knot you describe then maybe it is for the best. I don’t want to lose my friend either.”
“Am I doing the right thing?”
“How can I answer that? You’re the only one who could possibly answer. You know, this kind of reminds me of that movie we saw a month ago, do you remember? It was the Christopher Nolan film, “The Prestige”. I think you are in the situation that they were talking about, devoting your all to your art,” said Ayla. “In doing this, in distancing yourself from us, at least as far as anyone else is concerned, then you can make this happen.”
“That was the one with Christian Bale?”
“Yeah, he played twins who did everything for one illusion, including cutting off part of a finger. Living two lives in order to better sell the illusion. I think what you are talking about is doing this to sell the illusion you want, that you are not very powerful, and that you are not a danger,” reasoned Ayla, looking thoughtful.
“Yes, that is exactly it. The problem is that I don’t want to spend a year and a half pretending to have issues with the first real friends I have ever had,” grumbled Chou. “It doesn’t seem fair.”
Ayla thought about that for a moment and then said, “Well, you’ll have your Spot and so can talk to any of us when you want to. We all live in the same hall and should be able to talk that way if we can find a way to keep things covered. And I am not going anywhere. You are my best friend, and I’m not going to forget that just because of this stupid plan.”
“You’re my best friend as well, Ayla. I mean, you always listen to me bitch about things and have good advice. And we have fun, even if you do have terrible choice in music,” teased Chou.
“Listen up Miley… my ear for music is quite refined.”
Chou stuck her tongue out at Ayla, which made the boy laugh. “Yeah, you can do this and I know we will do what we can to help. I’m sure it’s going to be rough on all of us, but if it is what you have to do, you know that TK is going to help you make it happen.”
With a heavy sigh, Chou leaned forward, resting her head on her arms. “Thanks, Ayla. I know you guys have my back and in all honesty, that is the only thing that is going to make this happen. It really means a lot to me.”
“Hey now, no tears. It isn’t very manly.” Ayla tried to look very serious when he said that, which only made the two of them laugh louder.
“Oh yeah, I am the picture of manliness,” tossed back Chou. “I’m just worried. I hope this works but I also don’t want it to screw things up with us. I know you’re taking a lot of heat for this and I’m sorry. And to top it all off you are stuck with Vampire Barbie.”
“Please don’t bring Vamp into this. Ugh… I so want to strangle her. Look, I can’t begin to think where you are getting the information that is leading you to this. I know you and I know you would not do this unless you felt there was no other way to achieve your goal. You have to believe in yourself. I mean, all of the team believes in you, which is going to make the story about you topping out and stuff hard to sell,” said Ayla.
“You are the only one who could sell this. We all know that. Jade would screw this up in like… two minutes, if that? Toni would use Ki power to do who knows what and mess the whole thing up. The others would last longer but overall, they would all mess up at one point. You are the only one who can be trusted to stay with the story,” Chou shrugged. “The sad thing is that it will work because so many people think bad things about you.”
Ayla was slow in answering. “Yeah. That might be tough. Oh, so are you looking forward to having tea?”
“Ugh… don’t remind me. I know I need to do this but I so don’t want to do it.”
“Look Jadis says she really isn’t that bad, just a bit standoffish which doesn’t seem to be an issue with you, so it should be fun. I only know her from lit classes, but she's smart and well-read and friendly, or at least good at acting friendly. Just relax and enjoy yourself. I am fairly certain that she and her roommate won’t try anything. It should be a fun time.”
“No, but how can I be? I don’t really know her and she is very hesitant to deal with non-Asians. You might be able to fix that.”
Chou laughed softly, as her ex-roommate stood and got ready to leave. “Yeah… what are the odds of that?”